Tuesday, December 13, 2016

It's a Matter of Trust

I was planning to post about feeding cinnamon to horses today, but got side-tracked by a really interesting comment that lytha made on this post today.  As I was writing my response, I realized that part of what I had to say probably deserved a post of its own.  So here it is.

Lytha was writing about her frustration in dealing with trainers, especially those who seem to derail progress with your horse and even make you feel bad about your own riding abilities.  I've touched on my experience with one trainer in particular a couple of times and how breaking free from that experience was very liberating and set me on my current path.  I now have a set of rules that I apply to my experience with trainers, and if they are broken, I know it is time to move on and find someone else to work with.  Here are my rules:
  1. The trainer must allow me to ask questions and not get belligerent or defensive.  However, it is OK for the trainer to say she doesn't know the answer.  In fact, sometimes not knowing and searching for the answer is the best solution to a problem.
  2. The trainer must not restrict me to working only with her.  I must be free to go to clinics and ride with other instructors.
  3. The trainer must give me the freedom to ride on my own, without necessarily having once a week or even more frequent lessons.  I need lots of time between lessons to play around with what I learned during the lesson.  Nimo and I are the ones who need to learn to work together, not my trainer and Nimo.
  4. The trainer must never insist that only she can ride my horse and solve the problem.  It's absolutely OK for the trainer to offer to ride to see if that helps, but I need to have the ability to say no and work through the problem, even if it takes me twelve years longer than it would have if the trainer got on.  See above reason.
  5. If I experience a lot of frustration and possibly have a meltdown due to that frustration, I need a trainer who can watch objectively and not take my meltdown personally.  Getting frustrated is part of the learning process and any trainer worth her salt should understand that and even welcome it to some degree, because it likely means the student is on the verge of a breakthrough.
  6. The trainer must not insist on certain tack items (this one is borderline for me in my situation right now).  I absolutely must have the right of refusal on any piece of tack, even if I'm ignorant and wrong.  If that piece of tack is really the best one, I need to figure that out over time, and not because it was forced on me.  Plus, there are certain things out there that I just will not use, ever.  Like draw reins and martingales.  I'm not saying there isn't a situation where they might not provide a solution, but they are just not part of my world view and they don't go on my horse, period.
Essentially, there must be the ability for me to develop trust in my instructor AND for her to develop trust in me.  In a way, we are partners in the journey toward improving my horse's movement and my riding skills, and partners need to trust each other or things will go badly at some point.  Unless the student is willing to be a mindless follower and the trainer is willing to be the omniscient leader.

In addition to the bad trainer part of lytha's comment, she also said something else that made me think.  She wrote about a situation with one of her horses where the trainer got off when the horse misbehaved and how that concerned her.  I wasn't there for that situation, so I'm not going to speculate on what was right for that time, but it reminded me of how Nimo has behaved under saddle for a couple of trainers.  I remember that he once almost unseated my trainer at the walk, which was pretty impressive because said trainer had ridden eventers at high levels and I considered then (and still believe) that the trainer had an excellent seat.  The problem was that he did not use subtlety when using a "driving" seat on Nimo.  Nimo does not tolerate an excessive use of a person's seat on his back and he reacts accordingly.  Luckily, I never have to worry because I have never properly developed a driving seat (one of the reasons said trainer probably got really frustrated with my poor riding!).  Another time, I let a different trainer ride Nimo almost every day for short periods of time over a period of two weeks.  She drilled that poor horse to death because she was getting ready for a demonstration with him.  He was an embarrassment during the demonstration.  He would not canter at all and he was quite slow in his reactions and the only thing he demonstrated was how bad of an idea it was to drill him.

But I think these two situations don't just show poor decisions on the part of professional horse trainers (and possibly me for putting Nimo in the situations), they also show the importance of trust between a horse and his rider.  I think I've at least briefly touched on Joe Camp's "No Agenda Time," in which he advocates for spending time on the ground with a horse before riding, even for domestic horses.   I don't agree with the background behind the method, which involves Monty Robert's Join-Up technique and the concept of "leadership," but I do believe there is something to the idea of building trust before you ever put your foot in the stirrup.  I was lucky to spend a couple of years doing ground work with Nimo before I got on, and I continue to work with him on the ground periodically and try very hard to use a softer attitude than what I used to have.

In these cases with the trainers, Nimo didn't have a lot of experience with the trainers before they got on.  He'd seen them in lessons many times, of course, but he didn't really interact with them.  I assumed that because Nimo loves people, that he would also accept anyone riding him.  I no longer assume that.  One interesting thing that I noticed about my new instructor is that she takes time to greet Nimo when we come for a lesson.  And she typically spends a little time with him after the lesson too.  She just pets him and rubs him and tells him what a good boy he is, but I can see the value in that process for Nimo.  He loves the attention, of course, but each time he chooses to be near her and accept her petting, and I'm beginning to realize how important that choice is for a domestic horse, whose life is controlled so completely by others even though he possesses the capacity to control it himself.  I believe that Nimo would be perfectly fine if for some reason he had to live on his own, as long as there was reasonable access to water and grass.  Yet, he is forced to live according to the time table of the barn he lives at, be ridden when I choose, be ridden where I choose, eat what I give him to eat, stand for grooming when I tell him to, stand for bathing when I tell him to, stand for hoof trimming when I tell him to, and stand for all kinds of veterinary care because I tell him to accept it.  He willingly gets into a tiny box that moves at great speed surrounded by other moving vehicles with scary objects hanging off of them.  If I had to live like that, I would explode.

And so I don't necessarily claim to have a solution to all horse/human issues, but I think most problems likely come down to a matter of trust.  For some horses, that trust probably comes pretty easily.  For others, it may never truly be there.  But I think it behooves us as horse owners/riders to consider the horse's point of view and never assume that because we want something to occur that the horse feels the same way.  And even further, I would argue that if the horse absolutely does not want something to occur, maybe we should think about letting it go.  I don't mean that misbehaving should be tolerated if it creates a dangerous situation, but I no longer think it is as simple as "I want the horse to stand here for 10 minutes without moving just because, so that is what he shall do or there will be consequences."

I learned from our dog that an animal can be well-behaved and engaged, but not want to follow commands that seem to have no purpose.  She absolutely will not sit unless she understands the purpose of the sit.  She will actually lay down for mediation to be applied, even though she does not want it to be applied, but I believe that she does it because she understands that there is a purpose for the "lay down" command, even if the purpose is unpleasant for her.  Not all dogs are like that - our last dog was a black lab who would have probably allowed an amputation of his legs if a human was feeding and petting him - but our current dog has taught me that there must be relevance in my interactions with her.  And I don't think it is unfair for her to require a purpose behind my requests.

My work with her has convinced me that there is value to thinking about the purpose of my commands.  I'm not going to claim anything near perfection at this point, but I do really try to think about why I want something done now before I ask it, both with our dog and Nimo (and the guinea pigs too!).

For Nimo, I think the work on trust has paid off with respect to my daughter.  She has put in significantly more time making feed bags for him, grooming him, washing his feet, and leading him around than she has riding him.  Nimo has grown quite accustomed to her presence and even though I can tell he is still working on figuring her out, he absolutely consents to her being on his back and asking him to do weird patterns over small "jumps" (usually very small cross-rails or just ground poles).

Preparing for a ride
Gemma wanted to give Nimo a break so he could eat some grass because he had done such a good job going over the "jumps" she wanted him to walk over
Gemma carried this cat around for at least half an hour while I got Nimo ready for her to ride.  The cat has been at the barn since he was a kitten and Gemma has dedicated lots of time to interacting with him (and feeding him).  So even though she isn't carrying him very well, he absolutely tolerates it and even started to go to sleep in her arms because he trusts her.


  1. First of all, love the pix of Gemma on Nimo. She has the best grin! :-) Also of course love and agree with all of your points on what constitutes a good trainer. Agree wholeheartedly with all of them. When I found the person that fits all of the criteria you describe, I made so much progress. She enabled to rise from the ashes of my injury and fly. She never pushed me harder than I could stand. When I had a panic attack and thought I could not longer continue riding at all, she never shamed or rolled her eyes. She celebrated my small successes like I had won the Prix St George. She never sniffed at my plain brown $800 quarter horse with his western tack (she's a prominent and successful eventer, with a barn full of $$$$$$ horses). She encouraged me to take lessons and clinics from lots of different people and actively wanted to know-and incorporate- the lessons and concepts I learned from those other people into our work. I could go on and on. Notice that not many of these things have to do with knowledge of the horse or riding. Rather they are the things that create an environment where students such as my self can become more than they ever dreamed possible. She gave me wings. I hope everyone can find the equivalent.

    1. Yes! Celebrating little successes and fostering an environment where you can learn are so important! So glad you found someone to work with!